“I know we are not supermodels but ‘Ugly’ is just unkind.” Sister 1 says.
They have asked that their names be withheld, “For the moment we’d really like to distance ourselves from the whole thing,” says Sister 2 “but we think it would be good to put our side of the story out there, you know, get it off our chests.”
I was originally sceptical when they contacted me for an interview but it seemed too good an opportunity to miss. So here I am in a quiet coffee house sharing a plate of biscuits with two ladies who are indeed not unattractive in the least and exhibit none of the signs of haughtiness or pride that are traditionally attributed to them. S1 let’s out a musical laugh while S2 rolls her eyes theatrically skywards, “Step sisters? No, She just turned up on our doorstep one day!” They both give a ‘What can you do?’ shrug and S1 continues the tale: “She was wearing the most impractical and expensive ‘peasant’ outfit you have ever seen, but back when he was alive our father had done some trade with her father so we sort of knew who she was. Mum said she could stay as long as she did her share of the cooking and cleaning.” They exchange a glance and S2 stifles a giggle. “You’ve never seen anyone so completely useless in a kitchen!”
“Being a princess, she’d never touched a pan or lit a fire in her life!”
“We tried to show her what to do but practical tasks were not really her thing-”
“To be fair she did give it a go to start with, but puffing and blowing in the grate before you have cleared it of ash is always going to end in disaster!”
“She managed to cover herself in soot from head to foot..”
“… and most of the house!”
“And that’s when she started calling herself Cinderella.”
So it was her joke to start with?
“Oh yes, we all had a good laugh while we were cleaning up the first time.”
The sisters exchange another look, serious for a moment but soon excitedly interrupting each other again.
“As time went on though, she didn’t get any better. We kept on stepping in to show her how something was done and finding she’d wondered off and was singing in the garden-”
“-while we did all the work! So we tried going out and leaving her to it but we really underestimated how far she would go to get someone else to do it for her.”
“She dropped a bag of millet one day and instead of sweeping it up she just opened the windows and let the birds in!”
“It took 2 hours to get the last of the birds out and a week to stop the house smelling of pigeon poop. We were still plucking feathers out of the curtains a month later.”
“We came back one day to find a sheep in the parlour with a broom tied to it’s tail while she was prancing around the pantry with one of dad’s old coats ‘tra-la-la-ing’-”
“-and there were actual squirrels swimming in the sink!”
It’s all quite shocking. I enquire about vegetable transportation to 3 royal dances.
“One ball. We managed to arrange an extra invite for her but she said she was going to stay and clear up the mess she had made that day-” S1 starts. S2 breaks in
“- then she rocked up ‘fashionably late’, making quite the entrance.”
“Pumpkin” says S1, “was the name of the taxi firm. She hired a mini cab for the night, loaded two spare outfits and ran off to change at any point that she lost the Prince’s attention.”
“Pretending she didn’t know us all evening by the way.”
“At the end of the night she made a big show of having to run out before midnight-”
“-the Prince looked a bit puzzled and tried to start a conversation with a table decoration-”
“-so she scrawled our address on the bottom of her shoe, ran back in-”
“-and threw it at him!”
The last line said together, then heads back and laughing. S1 shakes her head
“They were so mashed”.
So the bit about trying on the slipper is all nonsense then?
“Ha ha! You’d think! But no: the next day there’s the Prince outside calling out that ‘Whosever shall this slipper fit’ etc. and we all have to go through this ridiculous palaver of trying on her 4 inch stiletto.”
“Which might have made some sense if she was a size 11 but she’s a 7-”
“-and so are we. Even mum!”
“Even Mrs. Blewfery from next door!”
Did you say ‘It fits! Marry me!’? They find the suggestion hysterical.
“Good grief no! The Prince is a total fantasist. Him and Cindy are perfectly suited.”
Do you know the song “The Raggle Taggle Gypsies”? Sure you do! It’s the one in which the lord comes home to find his wife has traded all the luxuries he offers for a nomadic life in the wild and gone off with the travelling folk. What few people know is that there is a song that goes before the famous one. “The Gypsy Bride” tells how the girl was abducted from her people by the nobleman and married against her wishes. So in the later, more well-known song she was not running away: she was going back home.
Discoveries like this can change one’s whole perception of a story. I have recently come across a string of variations on a story called “The Princess On The Glass Mountain”, the meat of which is that a princess sits on top of a glass mountain with a golden apple and the chap who can get the apple also gets to marry the princess. Suitors from all over embarrass and exhaust themselves for three days whilst the hero of our tale, using the help of a series of magical horses and increasingly flashy armour, gets a little further up each day until he wins the fruit and the girl.
How he gets his magical help is the business of the first half of the story and varies wildly but fortunately that does not concern us here. What I find of most interest is that whilst the winning of a royal spouse elevates the adventurer from rags to riches, in some versions the hero starts off as a prince who loses his position and wealth, giving the story a more circular riches-to-rags-to-riches-again form. This apparently disposable preface is common in other tale types too. Cinderella, in her assorted permutations, is sometimes a princess brought low and other times a poor girl brought even lower.
So is there a reason for this fundamental switch? Surely everyone loves a poor-child-done-good yarn so why change it? Or if the silk-to-sacking-and-back tale is the original why did it get truncated?
Unlike many other changes in stories this one has a very distinct and practical purpose which has nothing to do with the workings of the story and everything to do with the audience. Back in the medieval world, the ruling classes were very particular about purity of blood and would have had a storyteller thrown out (or worse) for suggesting that a princess (or prince) might marry a common stable boy (or serving girl), no matter how handsome (or pretty) they might be. These feudal aristocrats would happily seduce their underlings but never marry them. So a noble birth was essential for any character the teller was hoping to give a royal wedding to at the end of the tale. Conversely, the poor had no such concerns and would light up with hope, as we do now, at the thought of one of our number being able to break out of poverty or ordinariness in to the celebrity high life of sovereignty. Thus these tales developed a convertible form for easy portability as the storytellers of old hiked from rural settings to royal courts and back, de-rigging and re-attaching the front ends of the stories to suit the audience.
The modern audience has seen The Raggle Taggle Gypsies gain in popularity. In our post “Lady Chatterley” age, where romantic fiction introduced previously content wives to the idea of substituting a rugged and exciting all terrain model for him indoors, the introductory Gypsy bride was quietly dropped to fit this fantasy. The full story though, with explanatory preface in place, is transformed from destructive rebellion into wholesome restoration. So if you are planning any new beginnings this January remember what you might be looking for is an old beginning.
…here’s to living happily ever after, until the next adventure.
I’ve been rebuilding my bookshelves and sorting the massive collection of storybooks back into categories. It’s amazing how many of them feature the same stories, only slightly different. Some vary only in the voice in which they are told; some may be a name change here or there; sometimes the same story is in rhyme; in others the motivation for action is entirely different although the main plot features settle into their familiar pattern once things get going. Sometimes you come across entire stories welded on to the end of one you know… or maybe that was it’s original form and parts have been left out in later tellings. I remember my surprise on discovering that the famous dragon slaying episode in St. George’s tale is near the beginning of a much larger adventure. For me these discoveries are part of the exciting detective work that leads to the heart of the story!
Take Cinderella (no please take her, she’s been overshadowing her folktale sisters for far too long), you will find variations of this tale all over the world. They go by the various names of Tattercoats; Cap o’ Rushes; Mossycoat; Nipitfit and Clipitfit; with never a glass slipper or a pumpkin coach in sight.
Many of them are more empowered than Cinderella and don’t rely on a fairy godmother to do the work for them (though Tattercoats does get a hand from her only friend the crippled goatherd). The sisters rarely play more than a cameo role, neither ugly nor evil, they simply contribute to a misunderstanding between our heroine and (this may surprise you) her father, the king, leading to her banishment from court and a stint in lowly service. However the main plot reveals itself as the same over and again with the poor-maid-turned-anonymous-beauty winning the heart of the Prince at three successive balls.
Now for some of us reading a variation we may find ourselves missing the familiar elements, but if we can accept the differences they often show the story in a new light revealing valuable, previously obscured aspects of the tale. Without the special effects of transformed mice or the demonised step-mother, the climax of the story shifts from Cinderella’s ‘escape’ into marriage, to Cap O’ Rushes’ clever reconciliation with her father, making it less of a black and white Good-Versus-Evil tale and more a triumph of wit and perseverance over foolishness and pride.
One of the skills of a storyteller is to search out these variants of a story, and in exploring their individualities, get to know the essence of each tale. These different tales may have evolved through chinese whispers one to another, or sprung up simultaneously and spontaneously from the pool of human archetypes; either way the exploring storyteller may choose to weave them into a fresh, informed, new telling of the tale, their very own contribution to the evolutionary Folk process.
As Kipling says –
“There are nine and sixty ways
of constructing tribal lays
and Every Single One of Them
…. here’s to living happily ever after, until the next adventure.
The Travelling Talesman